Sunday, 30 August 2015

Review: Fierce by Rosalind James

I hate writing entirely negative reviews and I don't think they are very useful to the reader, so I always try to bring some relativity to it.  I whinge away and then say 'but this was a redeeming feature' or 'if you are not bothered by xyz, then you might like this book more than me', but I've tried to do this for Fierce by Rosalind James and I can't. I've sat here staring at my blank screen for twenty minutes and I can't think of a single redeeming feature, and I can't think of a single person who might enjoy it, but clearly many people did because there are a lot of positive reviews online. To each their own, but, for me, Fierce was interminable and prompted some serious WTF moments.  

The first came from the power imbalance. This happens in a lot of romance novels, of course, and there's nothing wrong with it, but it needs to done carefully so it doesn't seem coercive. Set in New York, Fierce is a romance about a Kiwi business tycoon, Hemi, and his employee, Hope. Throughout the novel, Hope is continually concerned that Hemi will fire her, and frequently laments her lack of other employment options. When she mentioned this to him, he claims he'd never fire her, but I'm not sure how Hope was meant to know that, given Hemi is manipulative, overbearing, ruthless and doesn't take well to being told 'No'. 

As an added gripe, this was often attributed to and excused by Hemi's Maori ethnicity. At one point, he fantasises about hauling Hope away, and then says: 

"I couldn't do any of it, because this wasn't the New Zealand bush, it wasn't three hundred years ago, and she wasn't mine."  
Gah with the noble savage stuff. Also - and there's a spoiler here, because I really can't be stuffed to talk in circles - this book really reinforced the fact that the American healthcare system is completely nonsensical. Hemi 'proves himself' by paying the medical expenses for Hope's sister, Karen, in a move that finally convinces Hope that she shouldn't do a runner (even though she totally should). That plot device wouldn't have worked in Australia (or New Zealand), because the conversation - in a worst case scenario - literally would have gone like this:

Hope: My sister's throwing up constantly and I think she needs to go to the GP but I can't afford the fees so do you know one who bulk-bills?
Hemi: Yeah, there's a practice of them down the road.
Hope: Cool, thanks.

*after seeing GP*

Hope: So, turns out Karen has a brain tumour *sob*
Hemi: I'm sorry to hear that, Hope.  
Hope: Yeah, it's pretty bad. The GP gave us a referral to a Neurologist, but she only works in the public system once a month and is quite popular, so we are going have to wait maybe three to six months to get in *sob*.
Hemi: If you like, I'll pay for you to go to see the Neuro in her private rooms. It's usually about $220 dollars for an initial consultation, and you'll get $75 rebate back from medicare afterwards.
Hope: I'll give you the Medicare cheque and pay you back the rest next payday. K, thanks, bye. 
Hemi: Damn you, Medicare Benefit Schedule, you just ruined by chance to coerce this woman into a relationship!

Or Hope just would have taken Karen to Emergency one time when she had a bad episode and then it wouldn't have been classed as elective surgery and they wouldn't have had to wait at all. I understand, if you are working or lower-middle class in the U.S., the healthcare system is nothing to laugh about, but it's very hard to keep patience with a book that uses this plight so mercilessly. I've come across the plot device before and it hasn't bugged me as much, but as a New Zealander who had more money than he knew what to do with, Hemi should have:

a) paid his staff a living wage.
b) made sure their health insurance was sound and kicked in ASAP (Admittedly, I'm not sure about this. Is it legislated that you have to be in a job a certain amount of time before you can access healthcare or is it just convention?).
c) helped Hope and Karen out of the goodness of his heart.

It's getting 2 stars because it got slightly less awful in the closing chapter, when Hemi magically gained some humanity. I think I'll have to go back and read her NZ-set books with Maori heroes now, to see if she pulled the same fetishising bullshit there, and it passed me by. 

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Review: Special Interests by Emma Barry

4.5 stars

Normally, the taglines on romance novels are one of my least favourite parts of Romancelandia - they're either overblown, twee, misleading or play into stereotypes about the genre (on some memorable occasions, they manage to be all at once). But the one for Emma Barry's Special Interests is an example of what happens when taglines go right:

In fact, Special Interests as a whole is an example of what happens when things go right. We open in Washington D.C. some time after union organiser Millie Frank was involved in a hostage situation.  In retrospect, it's farcical, given the hostage-taker was wearing a chicken costume and only had a fake gun, but that doesn't mean she's not having a hard time getting over it. Especially since she's now a household name in DC. When she bumps into Parker Beckett - literally - she's so sick of all the attention that she uncharacteristically asks him home with her. She's mortified when he declines, but the two of them just keep crossing paths; budget negotiations are in full swing and Millie's trying to get Parker's Democrat Senator boss not to throw the working class under a bus by giving into the Republicans' proposed budget compromises. As for Parker, he's finding it hard to maintain a moral compass, and harder still to ignore an idealistic union representative who still uses the term 'working people' unironically and suffers from night terrors.

If Special Interests has a theme, it's balancing idealism and cynicism. Both Millie and Parker have long since realised that working in D.C. is not all it's cracked up to be, but they've dealt with this realisation in different ways; Millie's clung to her faith in organised labour as a cure to the ills of the political system, while Parker's become jaded and fatalistic. As characters, they are almost unparalleled. At the outset, Millie comes across as whiny and slightly irrational, but that's fair enough given the whole hostage thing. It also led to some good tension with Parker, who, in Millie's words, was "conceited, presumptuous and paternal". Barry skillfully peels back layer after layer from two seemingly self-absorbed characters, revealing them to be extremely complex and allowing them to evolve as each challenges the others' worldview. 

And the plot, as I mentioned, is about US politics budget negotiations, which perennially pop up in the news but that I've never really understood before now. So, if you have an interest in American politics, but don't want to follow the primaries too closely lest Donald Trump makes you lose faith in humanity, try Special Interests!

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Review: Flower in the Desert by Lavender Parker

4 stars 

In Flower in the Desert, tracker Jason Rivers is called in by the Feds to find a woman 'lost' in the Grand Canyon. He's done it many times before, but this time he feels a connection to the headshot he's given. The woman staring back at him - Ruby Lucas - is vibrant and beautiful, and a mother of two small children besides.  Intellectually, Jason knows she's probably dead, but he refuses to accept it. And when he finds Ruby still alive and fighting, he's determined to keep her that way, to get her out and back to her stable life as a lawyer and mother. What he's certainly not going to do is get involved with someone in such a vulnerable position, especially when he's pretty sure that her soon-to-be ex-husband left her out in the desert to die. Nor is he going to be her rebound from the murderous jerk, which means there is really no place for him in Ruby's life at all.

Jase and Ruby were both really fleshed-out characters, whose interactions were cute, touching and humorous, but what makes Lavender Parker's characters extra-refreshing is that they are both People of Colour. Jase is part Native American, having learnt his tracking skills from his Hopi grandfather, and Ruby is African-American (don't let the Eurasian cover model fool you). And guess what, publishers? Last I checked, the sky hadn't fallen in and there were no reviews on Amazon or Goodreads complaining that the characters were unrelatable because of their ethnicities. In fact, race is pretty much a non-issue in Flower in the Desert.  It is matter-of-factly mentioned when Jason first sees Ruby's photo that it's of an African-American woman, and his Native American ancestry is only brought up once or twice when relevant.

Although it was advertised as a novella, Flower in the Desert has the feel of a full-length novel, thanks to Parker's simple yet effective plot and understated characterisation, which made it engaging and different read. The second half was not as gripping as the first, but that's fair enough - it's hard to replicate the intensity of struggling to survive in a hostile environment.

However, I did have some quibbles with the HEA, as it touches upon one of my pet romance novel peeves. It really bugs me when children are integral to a storyline or character's life, but the reader is left to deduce their fate because they are not mentioned in the HEA. For example, the last we heard of Ruby's son, he was unsurprisingly having major problems with the fact his mum nearly died and people were telling him his father was responsible. This got to me, and I had to imagine a sequel where Ruby and Jase chipped away at Brandon's sullen and resentful pre-teen exterior to find the boy they knew and loved in his heart of hearts. I'm pathetic, I know, and I'm sure everyone without closure problems will find Flower in the Desert to be a fulfilling read in all aspects!

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Non-Fiction Review/Reflection: Western Imperialism and Cambodia's Curse by Joel Brinkley

If you are wondering why I haven't posted much in the last month, it's because I've been on holiday in Vietnam and Cambodia. It's prompted some thinking about the way I've seen Cambodia represented, and how this reflects on our society more then it does on theirs.  

Cambodia is not a country that sits high in the West's consciousness; it conjures up little more than images of Angkor Wat and a vague yet still horrifying knowledge of the Khmer Rouge years. It is also on our radar, at least in Australia, as a destination for backpackers and voluntourists. Visiting orphanages while travelling Cambodia has become highly popular, spawning a backlash from governments, NGOs and the media who are concerned about the booming industry of fake orphanages which separate children from their parents and institutionalise them for the benefit of Western visitors. UNICEF estimates that only one in every five children in Cambodian 'orphanages' is actually parentless. While in Cambodia, I came across these UNICEF-branded ads often - in restaurants, fair trade shops, even on the backs of toilet doors:

If I had not read Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joel Brinkley prior to entering Cambodia, the significance of many little things, such as these posters, would have passed me by. I can't rate Cambodia's Curse as a book; as a romance reader who likes feel-good reads, I have no way to judge it or even articulate my feelings that well. It's interesting and disturbing on a lot of different levels, first and foremost in the content it discusses but also in a more subtle way, in the way it reveals the ongoing legacy of centuries of colonialism and Western cultural imperialism.

For example, in the introduction Brinkley declares "Cambodia is the only place where the bulk of the nation, more than three-quarters of its people, still lives more or less as they did 1,000 years ago", citing both elements of Khmer culture, which I will discuss later, and a lack of 'modern' infrastructure as his evidence for this statement. However, I would posit that any claim that a culture or nation is static should be taken with a grain of salt. By their very definition, cultures are dynamic things, constantly undergoing processes of change, growth and reconciliation with outside beliefs and practices. The idea of non-Western cultures as timeless is a pervasive one, and although we have discursively seperated it from its roots, it still has the power to breed race hierarchies and binaries. 

At times it seemed as though Brinkley's entire thesis was built solely around this
 latent cultural imperialism. His key point is that Cambodia is inherently susceptible to corruption and other societal ills, which he sees as the natural progression of the age-old system of patronage described below: 
Unequal exchanges between the wealthy and powerful and the poorer and dependent are referred to as patron-client relationships. Both sides provide goods and services to the other. The patron possesses superior power and influence and uses them to assist his clients. The clients in return provide smaller services and loyalty over an extended period of time. The relationship is complementary, with both sides benefiting. The client is protected and assured a minimum level of subsistence. The patron in turn has followers, who serve to increase his power....For Khmer, as for Thais, the norm of reciprocity, the moral underpinnings of the system, are found in Buddhist notions of merit, karma and dharma. A leader is born into his advantageous position because of meritorious action in previous lives, this is his karma. This leader should then fulfill his dharma, or prescribed duty as a person of this status, by acting as a generous and righteous leader. He therefore redistributes goods and provides protection to those in his care. -  J. Ledgerwood, 'Understanding Cambodia: Social Hierarchy, Patron-Client Relationships and Power'
Brinkley contends that, when these relationships are transposed on to the present day, they breed corruption and widen the divide between rich and poor as patrons take more and more, and return less and less benefits to their clients. At first, it seems a fairly sound judgement, but when combined with the aforementioned idea of a changeless culture, it leads to conclusions that I feel are misguided and which play down the role the outside world - particularly the West - has exerted on Cambodia.  

Brinkley introduces the reader to his thesis about patronage with another sweeping statement: "far more than almost any other state, modern Cambodia is a product of customs and practices set in stone a millenium ago" (loc. 420). To him, the Khmer tradition of patronage has made the Cambodian people passive and apathetic, unable or unwilling to help themselves. This is a puzzling conclusion. If the Cambodian people shy away from upsetting the status quo, surely one cannot underestimate the way foreign powers and their ideologies have continually buffeted the nation around throughout the 20th century. 

Shortly after the end of the French colonial occupation, Cambodia came to the attention of the West as an adjunct to the Vietnam War, when it was suspected that the Viet Cong were moving supplies over the border. The USA and her allies dropped 2,756,941 tons of bombs on Cambodia during the Vietnam War - more than all the combined Allies dropped in World War II - and supported an erractic would-be dictator. In consequence, Cambodians fled to the forests and joined the emerging Khmer Rouge, as the deposed king urged them to do. The Chinese also provided military and financial support against the American-backed regime. 

When the Khmer Rouge began to seize control of rural areas and refugees began to bring horrible stories over the borders, the US was convinced, in that black-and-white way of Cold War thinking, that it was offshoots of the Vietnamese communists who were responsible. However, even if the refugees had been believed, there is nothing to say that intervention would have been more forthcoming; 1976 was an election year in the US, and, after the Fall of Saigon, the Western nations wouldn't have touched South East Asia with a barge pole. The Iran Hostage Crisis commandeered the world's attention, and when Vietnam could no longer countenance the masses of people fleeing, they invaded and deposed the Khmer Rouge, installing a government largely constituted of former Khmer Rouge commanders who had seen the way the wind was blowing and defected. Given the choice between awarding Cambodia's seat in the General Assembly to Vietnamese puppets or the Khmer Rouge, the UN - guided by the US - chose the Khmer Rouge, relegitimising them and helping them retain de facto control over large swaths of the country. 

When civil war broke out, the US, Vietnam, China and the USSR all armed different factions in the power struggle. After blithely ignoring the Khmer Rouge years and subsequent decades of unrest, the UN finally sat up and took notice in the 1990s, buoyed by a new faith in people-power after the collapse of the USSR and Eastern Bloc. They formed a special body, UNTAC, and threw $1.6 billion at the 'problem' that was Cambodia in the most ambitious state-building program since post-WWII Germany. Then, after only eighteen months and while a coalition government was still being formed, UNTAC was downsized and then dismantled, the UN chastened by its failure to prevent genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia.

Do not get me wrong, Brinkley covers all of what I have laid out above, and there are many more instances of foreign intervention in Cambodian affairs littered throughout his book, but he constantly comes back to this idea that Khmer culture itself is responsible for the situation in which the nation finds itself. It's a conclusion that, to me, doesn't hold up under examination.  

Ultimately fatalistic about the country's chances of betterment, Brinkley quotes many aid workers and foreign officials who lament that progress is not being made. They all say it is the fault of the government, and bemoan the Cambodian people for not being suitably outraged to affect change. An ex-US ambassador, also quoted by Brinkley, used 
to warn colleauges to "be careful, because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart". Looking back over quotes such as these in the writing of this piece, I was put in mind of a verse by Kipling, the poster child of imperialism, that was included in an English textbook I taught out of in India:

Take up the White Man's burden 
The savage wars of peace-
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hopes to nought. 
                        The White Man's Burden by Rudyard Kipling

The analogy might seem a bit extreme at first, but if you take out the first line and the reference to heathens - the two elements at which people are most likely to recoil - the sentiment is remarkably similar to that of Brinkley and his interviewees. And I am not alone in my assessment of the book; one reviewer on Goodreads says that he seems "replused by everything he is reporting", utilising "colonial overtones". Even Joel Whitney, writing for the New York Times says: 
...given Washington's role today in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it might have been braver if he [Brinkley] had chosen to hold Americans, and not just Cambodians, accountable for the suffering he so movingly describes.
And therein is the essensce of my problem with Cambodia's Curse. It's not necessarily that Brinkley puts forward a thesis with which I disagree, but the way this contributes to hegemonic discourses about 'the West and the rest' that continue to dominate foreign relations between nations and determine their place in the global community. 

But to give credit where credit is due, Brinkley's book has a truly astounding collection of statistics, and I've included some below as a final aside to give some context on the situation in Cambodia, to which I have unspecifically referred throughout this piece: 
  • In 2009, Cambodia's average per capita income was between 500-600 USD, while a third of all Cambodians lived on less than 1 US dollar a day (Cambodian Human Rights and Development Assosciation, cited loc. 4949) 
  • 42% of all children suffer from stunting, while the national average life expectancy is only 61. (Cambodian Human Rights and Development Assosciation, cited loc. 4949) 
  • Only 20% of all rural Cambodians have access to toilets or clean water (Cambodian Human Rights and Development Assosciation, cited loc. 4949) 
  • Again of 2009, 1 of every 185 pregnant women died in childbirth (UN, cited loc. 4080), and 1 child in 10 died before the age of five (unreferenced source, cited loc. 3011)
  • Around 1.5 million Cambodians are food insecure, unable to get enough food to supply 2000 calories a day (World Food Program in Cambodia, cited loc. 3355).  However, as of 2009, the nation produced an rice surplus of 2.5 million tons, which the government sold to Vietnam, Thailand and others (unreferenced source, cited loc. 3348).
  • In 2004, it is estimated government officials stole up to $500 million, around half of the state's annual budget and the same amount as that collected from tax and other internal revenue streams (the other half of the budget coming from foreign government and NGO donations) (unnamed US Embassy report, cited loc. 2980)
  • During the UN state-building intervention in Cambodia from 1992-3, each UN employee was given a daily living allowance of $145 USD in addition to his or her salary, equivalent to a year's income for most Cambodians (unreferenced source, cited loc. 1308). In the same one year period, the number of sex workers in Cambodia tripled (Crochet 1997; not cited in Brinkley)
  • From studies conducted in the early 2000s, it is estimated that around 47% of all Cambodians have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or symptoms of other psychotic conditions (M. Sothara, cited loc. 2295).  
  • As of 2004, it was estimated that one-quarter of all Cambodian men regularly beat their wives and children. At the end of the decade, it had risen to one-third (unnamed Cambodian government report, cited loc. 2310). It is suggested this is a result of the nation's widespread PTSD, which is now being passed on to a new generation who have grown up with dysfunctional and possibly abusive parents defined by the trauma they suffered under the Khmer Rouge (Reicherter, ctied loc. 2306). 
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